Stahl’s Reformed Theory of Freedom

Friedrich J. Stahl’s theory of freedom is counterintuitive, yet consistent with his Lutheran faith, and radically antithetical to the left-liberal and right-liberal conception at the same time. What follows is a brief introduction to the great German legal theorists’ view of political freedom.

Like Immanuel Kant, Stahl builds his theory of political freedom on ethical freedom.[1] But unlike Kant, Stahl builds his ethical view of freedom on a theological view. In fact, he follows the standard reformed view of freedom in regards to the four-fold state of man. At creation, Adam had the ability to sin or not sin (posse peccare et posse non peccare), an ability forfeited due to the Fall. But the born-again believer is restored to this dual ability and therefore gains more freedom. But this is not an increase in freedom due to an increase in options–it is an increase in freedom only because it is an increase in the ability to follow the essence of man’s true moral nature.

Stahl holds that in the alleged increase in legal freedom to choose to be the most ‘wretched cad’ or the noblest ‘wise man’ is probably an actual decrease in freedom. For him, the inability to choose evil is when a man is most free. This was Augustine’s view as well, that in the state of glory, redeemed man would be unable to sin, yet truly free (non posse peccare).[2]

It is crucial for understanding Stahl that, again, he begins with the theological category. As he sees it, the beginning of the loss of all kinds of freedom–including a loss due to state tyranny–is a theological/moral problem that must first be resolved between the people and God. [3]

“State absolutism” is the inevitable consequence of the “removal…of a higher (divine) order.” For this higher-order which comes from God is the source in which “all the rights of men and institutions have their root,” therefore, the State must transform “the human will, be it the individual will, be it the common will, into the lord on earth.”[4] This was the error of Jean Jacques Rousseau, he felt.

The Bavarian Jew turned Lutheran legal theorist views the “rights of men” and the “rights of institutions” as grounded in the divine order itself–not on a contract and not discovered by the brute force of reasoning. To deny this enduring order is to invite the tinyness of  man to try filling the void, and Leviathan is the largest creation he can call forth.

But on a practical level, there are other requirements for freedom.

“The first condition of legal freedom is thus the reasonableness of laws. The unreasonableness and thus immorality of laws is the first suppression of freedom. By contrast, the maintenance of a public life-order in the people and this order’s restriction of our actions is not in itself a reduction of our freedom but rather a postulate of it.”[5]

Here he is saying order restricts us, that is, order is necessary for law and society to exist, and this cannot, in se, destroy freedom, for it is the very thing which makes it possible, if we grant that this order is rational. He continues, “When this order truly is morally reasonable, it sets us not against our actual self but in accordance with it.”(needs citation) Neither morality nor order are the opposite of freedom, but freedom consists in both.

Order cannot be opposed to freedom, Stahl reasons, because both order and freedom are a part of the moral essence of man. And thus, there is no contradiction in man’s essence.  But when “man recognizes no given order over himself,” to which each person is united in various ways, “but instead makes each individual into the absolute center,” then the devastating consequence is that the “individual falls into a yet more slavish subservience….than that form which he wished to free himself.”[6] The condemnation of the French Revolution can be heard in the background of Stahl’s words.

To continue, freedom is not an arbitrary ability to choose between good and evil, but in fact, it is the ability to choose good. And a man who is less able to choose to do evil is actually more free. This paradoxical view is the standard reformed view regarding ethical freedom; however, Stahl applies this same concept to legal freedom:

There can be no right to that which is bad and repulsive in itself and unconditionally; for example to an atheistic religious confession and the education of children to the same, to an immoral lifestyle, total profligacy, and the like.

It is not society’s responsibility to increase the choice between good and evil, so as to make men freer. Such a choice is not freedom and its increase is not progress. To lead into temptation for the sake of resoluteness is a matter for God alone because He also provides the strength to triumph over the temptation; it is not a matter of human government and leading.[7]

The reason a purported freedom to sin is not a freedom of our expression of our personality is because sin is the negation of our personality. Sin is the opposite of freedom, morally; thus, there can be no such thing as a freedom to sin legally, (for those worried, Stahl was not a theonomist, nor did he believe the government could or should enforce the minutist moral matters everywhere). In short, Stahl is making the distinction that liberals and libertarians alike do not, namely, the distinction between liberty and license.

Man is in God’s image. And God is the most free being…yet God can’t choose between sinning or not sinning. The Lord of the Universe is “the highest personality” who contains “aspects of freedom” which are “present absolutely.”[8] And though God has pure freedom, His being absolutely and consciously excludes “everything ungodly [and] unholy,” yet God has perfect “immeasurable individuality and creative power.”[9] If God is the most free, but also the least able to sin, how could we arrogantly think that freedom consists in being able to choose what is actually antithetical to our essence?

Man in his redeemed state has more freedom then man in his fallen state, but not because he can choose to sin or choose to not sin. Man has more freedom in his redeemed state because of a greater capacity to do good. Man has an even greater freedom in his glorified state, where he has less ability to choose, but greater ability to act in accordance with his true essence.

Hence, his famous quote makes more since. “Extreme liberty leads to extreme tyranny.” Extreme liberty is licentiousness, and licentiousness is not freedom.

Citations & References [1] There is another similarity with Kant; both assumed that metaphysical/moral freedom had direct and explicit bearing on political/moral freedom. This is interesting since many other conservatives questioned this very point that Kant assumed.
[2] See Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.
[3] “The ethical conviction can, however, nowhere be upheld without the religious; the collapse of faith therefore leads in its final conclusions to state absolutism.” Friedrich Julius Stahl, Doctrine of State and the Principles of State Law, p 94.
[4] Stahl, Doctrine of State, p 93.
[5] Friedrich Julius Stahl, Private Law, p 16.
[6] Stahl, Doctrine of State, p 61.
[7] Stahl, Private Law, p 19.
[8] Stahl, Private Law, p 14.
[9] Stahl, Private Law, pp 14-15.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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